Friday, January 22, 2010

Real Simple Suppers


Chicken-Broccoli Casserole a la Catherine (see below)

This blog post today is honor of Real Simple Magazine's 2009 Essay Contest–of course I entered it and remembered a few weeks ago that winners (first and runner-up) would be announced by phone and/or email "after January 3." The topic was "When Did You Realize You Were a Grownup?" (Mmm, now that I think about it, maybe I was not convincing enough–there are days that I still feel about 22 or 12, in my head, of course.) I spent a week crafting that essay back in early September, after hearing about it from my friend Edie, a Cupcake (the hardest part was reducing it to less than 1,500 words–is that a surprise?). I liked my essay, very much, but they got thousands of them and you never know what the editors are looking for in an essay contest. However, if you are a writer, or an aspiring one, I highly encourage entering any essay contest.

I rarely buy Real Simple because I find it really hard to slog through at times because it's far from simple in execution–it also bothers my ADD between having to surf over the huge amount of ads (even in this poor economy, so that is good for the prosperity–and popularity–of the magazine) and the brief snippets of information. [I had to also chuckle a few weeks ago while watching The Joy Behar Show. She was talking to the woman who did everything Oprah told her to do for a year, while blogging about it. Of course she also got a book deal! At the end of the conversation, Behar said, "A lot of these magazines...like Real Simple is the most complicated magazine I've ever read–it just gets you doing more things!" Exactly. Or to quote Fred Armison on Saturday Night Live impersonating Behar, "So what! Who cares?"]

And let's also point out here that the magazine title is not even grammatically correct: here is their defense of that in a response to a letter to the editor: "You are right to notice that Real Simple as our title is not grammatically correct. Although, we chose to emphasize the magazine's focus on the real and the simple, so we decided to go with the colloquial title over the strictly correct one." No sour grapes here, just some objective observations as it can be the gimmicky dumbing down in life which sometimes cloys.

Even though I can be a competitive person, I'm not a sore loser. The award went to Andrea Avery Decker of Phoenix, Arizona and she deserves congratulations for winning out of the thousands of essays submitted and I look forward to reading her essay. She will receive $3,000 for the publication of her essay ($2 a word is a good price in this magazine market, even though I was getting $1 a word twenty years ago) and a trip to New York City to meet the editors, see a Broadway show, and stay in a nice hotel.

To be honest, I was starting to obsess, how can I tell them that I don't want to fly? Or that I'd want to bring my 9-year old boy whose life goal at the moment is to go to the top of the Empire state building, even though his mother is terrified of heights? So I'm not terribly disappointed–who needs that kind of pressure? [But I had wanted to be the second essayist in my family to win an award and that kind of recognition. My grandmother Louise Truslow Grummon wrote "An Individual Struggles in the Age of Automation" in the early 1960s and won first prize and $5,000 with the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company! And my grandmother should have published more than the occasional magazine article, too. Her essay, is still relevant almost 50 years later and one day, when I can find it again (I am working on family archives this year), I'll reprint that essay here.]

In the meantime, here is an easy and tasty recipe we tried this month from Real Simple (I can't find the issue again but the recipe is also on-line–just click on the recipe title, below). And in their honor, I hereby christen this occasional "In the Pantry" segment: "Simple Suppers". I also follow it with my own recipe for a similar dish that I made last night. Both are good for a cold winter's night when you really want something warm and creamy but pseudo-healthy, too. You could also substitute whole wheat or other pasta for the shells or noodles–and go nuts with fresh herbs if you have them.

Cheesy Baked Shells and Broccoli from Real Simple
  • 3/4 pound medium pasta shells
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsps flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese (or other cheese or a combo)
  • 1/8 tsp ground or grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1-16 ounce package frozen broccoli
  1. Heat broiler.
  2. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 4 to 5 minutes.
  4. Add 1 1/2 cups of the cheese and stir until melted. Stir in the nutmeg, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1⁄4 teaspoon pepper.
  5. Add the pasta and broccoli and toss to combine. Transfer to a broilerproof 8-inch square or another 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of cheese. Broil until golden, 3 to 4 minutes.

This recipe reminds me of the creamy noodly-ness of Stouffer's® Tuna Noodle Casserole that my mother sometimes liked to get–they also had a really good Scalloped Apple dish and Spinach Soufflé, which I've used to make the base of a very good Northern Italian pasta sauce.

Simple Chicken-Broccoli Casserole a La Catherine (this is an easier variation of this recipe)
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 Tbsps garlic, minced
  • a splash of olive oil and a bit of butter
  • 4-5 chicken breasts (I used some pre-marinated ones we had in the freezer to use up)
  • 1 18-oz can Progresso® Creamy Mushroom Soup Vegetable Classics (finally, canned soups with only a few ingredients and ones that you can read–and NO MSG! I find it fairly cheaply at my local Walmart and stock up on it for this reason)
  • 1 head broccoli (or a bag of frozen broccoli florets)
  • 8 handfuls of egg noodles (When I can't get homemade noodles from a local friends, I like to use Mrs. Miller's Old-Fashioned Extra Wide® which we get at Sunny Valley bulk foods)
TOPPING:
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 2 Tbsps melted butter
  1. Set oven to 350 degrees. Boil water for pasta, add a bit of salt, and cook broccoli al dente in a steamer basket over the pasta if you are set up for that–or separately.
  2. Sauté shallot and garlic in melted butter. [You might also want to add some sliced fresh mushrooms but I didn't have any.]
  3. Add chicken chopped into chunks.
  4. Cook chicken only a few minutes, gently tossing while stir-frying until almost done.
  5. Add mushroom soup and salt and pepper. Set aside off burner.
  6. Drain noodles and broccoli (make sure broccoli is still quite green) and toss in with the chicken mixture. (I sauteed and baked in the same pan–my Le Creuset Dutch oven.)
  7. Top with topping that you've made by melting butter, tossing in bread crumbs and cheese.
  8. Bake for about 30 minutes until bubbly–or broil, briefly, until bubbly.
  9. Serves 5-6 people.
And now for a teaser: this Gooseberry Crumble with Vanilla Pouring Custard looks much better than it actually was, in my opinion (although my husband loved it and that speaks volumes–our boys wouldn't go near it, sadly, but they do love my casserole creations). I made it and baked it along with the casserole. The custard was passable but could have been thicker. The crumble was my own assemblage of ingredients but the gooseberries were a bit tart on the old pucker, despite the added sugar. We picked them last summer and I've been wanting to do something with them ever since (they freeze as easily as cranberries). But I need to tweak the recipe first, having never baked with gooseberries. Thanks to our own lovely eggs, the custard is really that yellow! I'll work on this for a future installment.

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